it’s all backcountry
it’s all backcountry
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ON THE CHAIRLIFT at a resort and seen ant-like figures making their way up a nearby peak that you know is not on the resort map, wondering how they got there? Many world-class resorts like Jackson Hole, Alta, Whistler Blackcomb, and Revelstoke all have something in common. These resorts offer vast and challenging backcountry terrain that can be accessed via lift. Skiing in backcountry terrain that has been accessed from a resort is a highly attractive idea. You typically have much less work to do to get to your objective, saving time and energy compared to touring from a parking lot. But it must be understood that this type of skiing and riding is equally as dangerous as traditional backcountry skiing where you start from a trailhead. You’re responsible for yourself and your partners, and you have to mitigate all the danger yourself. Not to mention any rescue must be performed by you and those you are with. If things go south, you cannot count on the nearby ski patrol to provide help. As a matter of fact, whenever ski patrol becomes involved in a backcountry incident, it is likely to be a body recovery scenario.
The main difference between backcountry skiing and resort skiing is in the snowpack. Resorts have what is called a “controlled snowpack.” Resort operations have organized and dedicated ski patrol teams whose mission is to keep people safe through avalanche hazard reduction. This mitigates avalanche danger through ski cutting and explosives. They also have a snow safety director who deems an area safe to ski. Although in-bounds avalanches do happen, they are few and far between compared to backcountry avalanches.
Avalanche hazard reduction is not done in the backcountry or anywhere outside resort boundaries. Each ski resort has boundaries, a roped-off perimeter that separates “in-bound” skiing from “out-of-bounds” skiing. Ski resort maps will typically mark areas that are considered “boundary lines.” The moment you head through a backcountry access gate at a resort (or duck a rope), you are instantly entering into a wild snowpack, meaning a snowpack that has absolutely zero mitigation work done to it and, as a result, can be much more volatile.
The snowpack is defined as “a mass of snow on the ground that is compressed and hardened by its own weight.” To skiers and snowboarders, the snowpack is more than just “a mass of snow.” It’s an intricate system comprised of different layers that, because of variabilities like moisture, temperature, slope angle, aspect, and wind (to name a few), can increase or decrease the likelihood of an avalanche at any given time.In Europe, they use the terms “off-piste” and “on-piste.” On-piste skiing is anything that is groomed. Off-piste, as you probably put together, is any skiing or riding that takes place off a groomed run. And, unlike resorts in America, many European resorts don’t have actual rope lines to mark off the groomers. So, as with skiing in lift-accessed backcountry areas in America, one should treat off-piste skiing and riding the same as they would by skiing in the backcountry.